How I’m Learning To Love My Body, Find A Middle Ground, And Buy Clothes Without Regret
I was pregnant or breastfeeding for four years. Starting in March 2015, when I got pregnant with Kidwoods, straight through to April 2019, when I weaned a 14-month-old Littlewoods. There was a one-month hiatus in 2017 after I weaned Kidwoods and before I got pregnant with Littlewoods. Other than that, my body’s been in full-time mama territory.
Today is an exploration of how my relationship with my body–and by extension, with clothes–evolved as a result of my pregnancies and parenting. I’m learning it’s more nuanced than the fact that my hips will never go back to their original shape. The physical changes are the most obvious, but the mindset shift is the most affecting.
Body positivity, acceptance, finding a balance between vanity and neglect, breaking my clothes-buying-ban, and spending money are all wrapped up in this experience.
Four Years Of Maternity Clothes
Four and a half years ago, I was determined to cobble together a hand-me-down maternity wardrobe and baby nursery. And I did it. I totally did it. I’ve got the full story here: How I Saved Tons Of Money During My Baby’s First Year.
But today is about me. After I weaned Littlewoods, I woke up the next day, looked in my closet, and realized that everything was maternity or stretched out or way, way, we’re talking WAY too small. My body’s been through a lot and my clothes reflected it. I flipped through the hangers and found nursing tank tops, maternity pants with strained waist bands, stains from all sources, and shapeless shirts distorted to accommodate nursing babies. I felt depressed about continuing to wear maternity clothes long after giving birth. Depressed that nothing else fit.
I’m grateful I was able to breastfeed both of my daughters. I’m beyond thankful I had two healthy pregnancies resulting in two healthy babies. I’m aware of how fortunate my husband and I are and of how many families yearn and struggle for exactly what we have. I’m also aware that I’ve been wearing hand-me-down maternity clothes for four years straight.
My Clothes Problem
Before pregnancy, before motherhood, I loved clothes. Loved them too much, in fact, which was the impetus for my clothes-buying-ban in the first place. I stopped buying clothes in January 2014 and didn’t buy anything (no shirts, no shoes, no socks, no undies, nothing) until a pair of winter boots in February 2017.
After starting my Frugalwoodsian journey to a simpler life of less consumerism and less spending and less stuff, I came to terms with my over-consumption of clothes. I’d thought I was doing good because I shopped only at thrift stores and garage sales. But that was still money spent and still way too much stuff in my closet. It doesn’t matter if something’s a good deal if you don’t need it. That’s a hard lesson for me and one I have to continuously re-learn.
When I got pregnant with our first child, I packed all of my cute, small, fancy clothes away in the basement. When we moved to Vermont, they moved along with us. I thought I’d wear them again. After my first baby, I could wear most of them again. I lost most of the baby weight pretty quickly and–with the hubris of the unexperienced–thought I’d have no problem doing the same after baby #2. Well. Here’s the thing about that: nope, nope, nope. One of the reasons I lost the weight is that I was breastfeeding. When I stopped breastfeeding, my weight crept up.
Then I got pregnant with baby #2 and, after Littlewoods was born, my body refused to rebound. The pregnancy weight clung to me like an uninvited koala bear: warm, soft, gripping my belly and hips. Nursing helped, hiking helped, yoga helped, eating well helped, but after 14 months, I needed to accept my new body. But “accept” isn’t what I did; “resigned myself to it” is more like it.
Then I Went To New York City
Around this time, I went to the New York City Statement event for women in money and was surrounded by confident, successful, beautiful, brilliant women who balance femininity with feminism and intellectual success with trendy outfits. I felt awkward in my dresses that were, at minimum, ten years old.
I wore a lot of black on that trip in the hopes of smoothing things over and looking less rural. Before I left, one of my Vermont friends–my chicest Vermont friend–told me not to worry about what I wore because, no matter what, one cannot contend with the trends of NYC.
She was right; I was out of date and out of shape. But you know what? It didn’t matter. No one cared. Everyone wanted to talk about my work, about their work, about my book, about their book. It was empowering.
During this trip, I gave a talk about Frugalwoods to a packed house at the Financial Gym wearing a black dress I bought at Talbots ten years ago with a gift card from my mother-in-law. It was too tight, but I was sitting down for the presentation and it was ok as long as I didn’t bend over.
Body Positivity: Mrs. Frugalwoods Learns Something New
While in New York, away from my kids and husband, away from my homestead, away from my mom-role, I was free to think about myself and my body. Something I hadn’t had time to do, but moreover, something I’d avoided doing. My body was a vehicle these past four years: a cocoon to grow babies, a source of sustenance, a means of conveyance, and a convenient place for kids to wipe noses. During that trip, I had a conversation–actually a tear-infused three-hour brunch at an incredible French restaurant–with my friend Emma Pattee, who recently wrote about her experience with prenatal depression here on Frugalwoods.
I confided in Emma that my body felt mommed-out and that none of my clothes fit and that I didn’t like how I look. I’m not fat, but I’m not the size I used to be and that bothered me. Instead of encouraging me to exercise more or lauding the role my body played in creating life, she did something really useful. She told me about body positivity. I was like, bodies? Positivity? I’m listening. Emma explains it best in her New York Times article on the topic, so I’ll excerpt:
If you’ve ever been on a diet, you probably told yourself that as soon as you lost those pounds, you’d love your body. Maybe you did actually achieve that goal weight, or maybe you didn’t. But chances are, you didn’t end up with a long-lasting love for the way you look.
Whether it’s weight loss or some other element of your appearance, you shouldn’t wait for some magical change to start loving your body. Loving your body as it is, regardless of your exercise routine or diet is one of those rare “life hacks” that doesn’t have a downside.
YASSSSSSS. You can see why our brunch involved a lot of tears. I’m yes, yes-ing all over because this is HOW I’VE FELT MY ENTIRE LIFE. Right? Like there’s GOT to be one weird trick to making my booty less flat and my stomach more flat (could the fat not just switch places!?!? would it be so hard?!?). I’ve always felt I SHOULD be DOING MORE to get into better shape. A more desirable shape. A shape that’s condoned by our culture. A shape lauded as “healthy” and “attractive.”
Well you know what? Maybe there’s more I could do and maybe there isn’t. Maybe the shape I am is fine. Even if it’s not fine, it’s the freaking shape I am.
Emma blew my mind with this whole body positivity movement, which is indicative of how much I have left to learn. I recently listened to an NPR Hidden Brain podcast about how approaching your work as a novice, or rebel, can yield tremendous dividends. This made me wonder what I don’t know. Turns out, there’s a lot I don’t know. Accepting that ignorance and embracing my flawed knowledge base is pretty cool. It’s allowing me to explore my work as a novice would: with excitement and a willingness to be introspective, a willingness to admit I was wrong. I’ve been wrong a lot and I realized that one of my most prominent wrongs was my decades-long devotion to…
The Guise Of Being Healthy
I’ve dieted and exercised my entire adult life under the banner of “being healthy.” I was “being healthy” by only eating salads for lunch. I was “being healthy” by refraining from cookies at a party. I was “being healthy” by berating my body in front of the mirror–after all, I just wanted to be better, to be healthier. I was “being healthy” when I criticized other people’s food choices, exercise decisions, and bodies.
All of this was ok, all of this was good, because I was “being healthy.”
I’m not saying that healthy foods and exercise aren’t wise choices–they empirically are–but there’s a temptation to paper over vanity, obsession, and body shaming in the name of “being healthy.”
Reading Emma’s writing about body positivity, and following some awesome body positive influencers on Instagram (I believe social media can be a good influence if you’re careful about what you consume), started to reform the way I think about my weight, my body, my appearance, and myself.
Seeing pictures of healthy, HAPPY folks of all sizes in my Instagram feed eroded my conviction that skinny is best and thin is in and fat is bad, bad, bad.
Undoing prejudices we’ve held for a lifetime isn’t easy, but I think it’s necessary. The world calls on us to evolve as people, accept new ideas, and challenge ingrained beliefs.
Creating A Family Philosophy of Body Positivity
I’m super motivated to do this transformative work right now because I have two young daughters. Two girls who will grow up to be women. Two girls I cannot shelter forever.
I have days, you guys, where I want to keep my daughters home with me all the time. To shield them from the negativity and predation that stalks women. To create a world for them where all bodies are celebrated and no bodies are coerced and all bodies are listened to and respected. A world where all bodies are valid and needed and valuable.
Since I can’t–and won’t–keep them home with me all the time (to whit, Kidwoods started preschool this week), I’ll control what I can control: the environment inside my home.
I can’t control what their peers tell them, but I can control what I tell them and what they overhear their parents saying. My husband and I are creating a home atmosphere, and a family philosophy, that’s gender neutral, affirming, accepting, progressive, and–as I’m now learning–body positive.
Striking A Balance
I don’t want to mislead my kids or delude myself into thinking that all foods are healthy and that all levels of inactivity are healthy. But I also don’t want them to obsess over their appearances and their weight. I want them to understand nutrition, but not feel the need to “diet.” I want them to incorporate exercise into their lives, but not slavishly churn away to burn fat. In other words, I want balance.
As a family, we eat whole foods: fruits, vegetables, whole grains, local organic meat and eggs, some dairy. As a family, we are outside a lot: running, playing, chopping wood, gardening, hiking. As a family, we sleep long nights, drink lots of water, and have limited screen time. As a family, we don’t talk about appearances very often and we don’t say negative things about anyone’s body. As a family, we’re trying hard to engender a body positive mindset.
As a family, we are many different sizes. Kidwoods clocks in at the 60th percentile for height and weight. Littlewoods, on the other hand, barely cracks the 3rd percentile, which means she’s very tiny. Totally healthy and well-fed, but really small. I don’t want to create identities for my kids around their sizes. The fact that one is average and one is minuscule doesn’t matter. They both have worth and value regardless of their percentile.
To be honest, it’s pretty easy to create a body positive atmosphere right now: we just say that people come in all shapes and sizes and that it’s good to eat good foods to help you grow and to move your body and be active. That pretty much does it for a 1.5 year old and a 3.5 year old. But I know these are the easy years as far as appearance and self-confidence are concerned.
I know that we will have tween daughters and teenage daughters and I know that someone will say something cruel–whether intentional or not–about how they look. So I’m girding myself now to be ready for them. I’m reforming my mindset now to not just accept my body, but to love it.
Working For Self-Confidence Without Vanity
While I was pregnant and a human milk machine, I stopped caring about my appearance. Anyone who saw me out in public can attest to my lack of care. I struggled to get through a day when my kids were newborns and taking a shower (alone, thank you very much) was the height of decadence.
My hair was somewhere up on my head and clothes were hopefully covering the requisite bits. I didn’t have energy to put into my outer shell and that was ok. I’m all about leaning into the phase of life you’re in and I was in the phase of surrendering to my babies.
After being diagnosed and treated for postpartum depression, and after Littlewoods stared sleeping through the night, and finally, after Littlewoods was weaned, I raised my head. I looked in the mirror. I saw myself.
For the first time in four years, I thought about myself and my body as separate from my children. I didn’t want to go back to my pre-pregnancy routine of counting calories and tracking my weight and obsessing over how my waist looks in a dress, but I craved something more than my beaten-up maternity clothes/tents. I had Mr. FW cut my hair short, which helped alleviate the time and stress of managing it. Then I turned my attention to my clothes.
What’s The Middle Ground Here?
I have a tough time finding the middle ground. It’s easier for me to be extreme. This is one of the reasons why our early days of extreme frugality were natural for me: I can totally go all in on not spending any money. That is my JAM. I can also go ALL IN on not eating anything unhealthy. I can be 100% on never eating out. What I struggle with is identifying compromises. How much money is ok to spend? How many brownies are reasonable to consume? How often should we go out to dinner? Answers: 1) unsure; 2) not enough; 3) once a month seems to work for us right now.
In today’s example, I’m trying to balance all-consuming vanity with utter appearance neglect. Again, it’s easy for me to swing one way or the other. The middle ground that most people seem to effortlessly inhabit? Not my forte. Until now. I think. Still TBD. “Work In Progress” should be my human bumper sticker. Although I’m trying not to draw attention to my mom butt, so let’s not put a sticker on it.
Recognizing my desire for a middle ground, I cleaned out my closet. In a torturous, days-long project, I tried on allllllllll the clothing I own. If you think you don’t have a lot of clothes, try trying them all on in one day. In front of a mirror. Most of them did not fit, which was awesome, let me tell you. I discovered that at least 80% of my clothes were either:
- Bedraggled maternity or deeply worn post-maternity.
- Super chic, teensy tiny work clothes from back when I worked in an office.
Neither of these categories suits my current roles: non-pregnant mom who works outside on the farm and inside on the computer and goes to a lot of social functions with two young children clinging to some portion(s) of her body. So I got rid of them.
I meant to count the number of trash bags jammed with clothes that I donated to the thrift store, but I forgot. I did take one picture of the trunk of the Prius loaded down with donations, but that was only one of many trips. I gave away all of the maternity clothes to several friends who are pregnant with their first babies. I donated all of my former work clothes. I gave away shoes, coats, purses, dresses, jeans, trousers, blazers, blouses, shirts, sweaters. Giving away all of this didn’t feel like a loss. It wasn’t painful. It was a liberation. I had all this STUFF sitting in my house–crammed in the closet, stowed in the basement, jammed in the drawers–and I wasn’t using any of it. Instead, here’s what would happen: I’d go to get dressed, pull out something I like and realize one–or several–of three things:
- This does not fit
- This doesn’t even come CLOSE to fitting
- This makes me look pregnant
That bummed me out. It doesn’t feel good to be reminded every day that you don’t fit into things. Having size 2 jeans in my closet didn’t motivate me to exercise more–it depressed me. It made me feel like I SHOULD dedicate all my time and effort to getting back down to a size 2–consequences be damned. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to forgo nourishing, filling meals. I don’t want to forgo my rare chances to sit on the couch and talk with my husband in favor of squeezing in a workout. I want to be… wait for it… content. I want to be happy with my life and with my body. So I gave away those size 2 jeans (I really loved those jeans) and I said goodbye to that part of my life.
Will I ever be a size 2 again? Unlikely. But if I am? I’ll go to the thrift store and buy some new-to-me size 2 jeans. I don’t need to shame myself every morning when I’m just trying to get dressed before the baby wakes up. I don’t need to feel anger over my weight every time I reach into my closet and come back with something that’s too small. That won’t bring happiness into my life.
What’s interesting to me is that as much clothing as I gave away, I’m sitting here itching to go through my closet again and get rid of even more. All four seasons of my wardrobe now fit into my side of the master bedroom closet. I do have a few fancy occasion dresses, along with one black suit, hanging in the basement and my winter coats are in the front hall. But other than that, all of my clothes are in one closet. And I still only wear about 5% of it. I’m going to challenge myself over the next few weeks to winnow down my stash even more. Doing so clears my mind, it frees me from decision fatigue over what to wear, and it lets someone else score a great deal at the thrift store.
So, I Bought Clothes
After giving away almost all the clothes I own, a sparse and slightly tragic retinue remained: leggings I got a garage sale, a few dresses, and a bunch of sweaters/fleeces. I could’ve cobbled together outfits from this sad assemblage, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to feel good about the clothes I wear and I wanted to have a few things that look decent. So I bought new clothes. I didn’t take my own advice. I didn’t go to the thrift store or wait for a garage sale. I got on my computer, typed in my credit card number, and had new clothes shipped to me. And I’m so glad I did. Plus, I have a cash back credit card, so at least I got some money back…
Buying clothes is part of my new attempt at balance. The old me would’ve berated myself for spending money on something as frivolous as clothes. The newly-becoming-me recognizes that I was tired of wearing hand-me-downs and stuff that didn’t fit. I’m still me, I’m still Mrs. Frugalwoods, and I still like a good deal. I spent waaaaaaaaaaay more time than I care to admit researching leggings (that’s a rabbit hole I hope to never go down again), which proved my theory that frugality can fix paralysis by analysis and that more choices do NOT make us happier. I found what I consider a good middle ground: $9.97 and $24.99 leggings from Old Navy.
Then I found two pairs of leggings for $2 at a garage sale a few weeks ago–here they are on Amazon if you’re interested (affiliate link). The leggings, along with several $24.97 long-sleeved dresses from Old Navy and four $19.99 short-sleeved dresses from Target, plus my much-lauded Jockey Skimmies, provide me with a year-round, all-seasons wardrobe that I enjoy and that’s comfortable. Since I liked the Old Navy leggings, I bought the same leggings in four colors. I bought the same dress in two different colors. From Target, I bought the same short-sleeved dress in four different colors. Actually, not gonna lie, two of the dresses are the same color. Yep. I own two identical dresses. This is a problem with online shopping–I SWEAR they looked like different colors on the screen. No worries, I wear them both over the course of a week.
You know what I realized while purchasing all these dresses and leggings? I don’t like wearing jeans. Of any size. They pinch and squeeze and constrict. I LIKE LEGGINGS AND DRESSES. I’ve known this my whole life but militated against it because I thought I should wear jeans or trousers or pantyhose or something (definitely not pantyhose). Ridiculous, I say. So I didn’t buy new jeans.
My indoor clothes sorted, I needed something for outside farm work. Burned out my from leggings search, I decided to copy my husband and ordered a pair of the exact same work overalls he has (and loves) along with the exact same long-sleeved work shirt he has and loves (affiliate links). We look like members of a matching cult, but other than that, it’s the perfect outdoor work outfit.
The women’s version of these overalls are more expensive, less durable, and have fewer pockets. Forget that. I ordered a small men’s size and they’re awesome. As the weather turns, I’ll add long underwear underneath and a coat over the top. When snow sets in, I got a pair of snow bib overalls from a yard sale that I’m hoping will suffice along with my infamous trash-find-coat and these winter boots, which are what initially broke my clothes-buying-ban.
The Unfulfilling, Endless Consumer Carousel
I don’t want to go back to my old habit of perpetually buying clothes. I want to settle on this wardrobe and be done with shopping. Several reasons for this:
- The more I buy, the more I think I need. The more I online shop, the more ads I see for cute dresses I might like to buy… The more I click on cute dresses, the more inadequate my current dresses feel. Doesn’t help that all of the models are size 0.
- The more I buy, the more money I spend. This is the obvious frugality argument and it’s one that’s well-hashed here on Frugalwoods. You know I love my captain obvious phrase: “The easiest way to save money is to just not buy anything.”
- The more I buy, the more stuff cluttering my life and mind. As established, I just gave away a metric ton of clothing. I don’t want to re-start bringing unnecessary clothes into my house only to have to later comb through and give them away. The other week I bought what I thought was a cute dress at a yard sale for $1. So, just a dollar and not much time spent deliberating over it, which negates reasons #1 and #2. But what it doesn’t negate is #3. I had to jam it into my closet and, as I heaved hangers aside, I knew I shouldn’t have bought it.
- The more I buy, the less satisfied I am. Consuming puts me on the carousel of never enough. Once I start, it’s hard to stop. It’s so easy to get myself into the mindset of “I’ll just buy one more dress and then, THEN I’ll be done. Then I’ll be all set. Then I’ll be happy.” That’s a tough treadmill to get off. When do I reach enough? When am I wearing the perfect dress that’ll help me feel perfectly positive about my body? When will buying equal happiness? I think we all know the answer to that.
Test Out The Extremes To Find The Middle
I seem to live my life like a ping pong ball. I hurl myself toward one extreme and then ricochet to the other. Eventually, hopefully, I settle on a midpoint. I learn a lot from my time on the extremes.
Before Mr. Frugalwoods and I adapted an extremely frugal lifestyle, we experienced what in my book I call a “rumspringa of spending.” Now we’ve migrated to a moderate midpoint of spending: we’re not super frugal, we’re not super spendy, and we still live far below our means.
Before wholesale neglect of my appearance, I was overly preoccupied with what I looked like and what I was wearing.
I hope I can now nudge myself into moderation. I can wear clothes that fit and aren’t stained. I can (kind of) fix my hair. I can feel good about how I look without it being the most important thing about me. I can be positive about my body no matter what size it is.
How do you find the middle ground of moderation?
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